The fact that Russia sabotaged the Geneva accord on Ukraine, refusing to condemn the pro-Russian takeovers in eastern Ukrainian cities and making threats to respond militarily if Ukrainian forces crush the rebellion, doesn’t mean that the basic calculus of the Ukraine crisis has changed. Now, as earlier, there is virtually nothing that the United States can do to confront Russia. The sanctions announced today by President Obama and the paltry and symbolic military deployments into Eastern Europe won’t do a thing to stabilize Ukraine. Yes, diplomacy is still the answer, but how will diplomacy work if Russia continues to make it clear that it isn’t interested in diplomatic accords?
In any case, the opposite of diplomacy, namely, the talk of strengthening and expanding NATO in response to Russia’s arrogance in Ukraine, could make things a lot worse. Also making things worse would be US military aid to Ukraine, as Senator Carl Levin (D.-Mich.) is calling for.
Like 9/11, when every security, military, intelligence and police advocate demanded new authorities, new rules and more money, even if none of it had anything to do with stopping Al Qaeda, today in the midst of the Ukraine crisis every pro-NATO advocate, hawk and defender of the Pentagon is cynically using Ukraine to demand a halt to budget cuts, more military spending in Europe, and expansion of NATO. That’s true even to the point of directly threatening an escalated confrontation with Russia in its own backyard, where few believe either the United States or Europe have the will or capacity to make a credible stand. But as Julianne Smith, an official at the hawkish Center for New American Security, a Washington think tank, said in recent testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, there’s even talk about stationing substantial, permanent forces in Eastern Europe:
At the NATO Ministerial in early April, Radek Sikorski, the Polish Foreign Minister, asked NATO to station 10,000 troops on Polish territory as a demonstration of NATO’s resolve to defend its member states. That request went unanswered but raised one of the toughest questions associated with reassuring NATO allies in Central and Eastern Europe—will the Alliance consider abandoning a 1997 pledge not to permanently station NATO troops in new member states? That question has triggered a lively debate inside the halls of NATO and across the capitals of NATO member states.
Such proposals are folly, of course, but that hasn’t stopped hawks such as The Washington Post’s semi-neoconservative Jackson Diehl from calling the events in Ukraine a “wake-up call for NATO.”
Meanwhile, the new sanctions announced today, against seven Russian officials and thirty Russian companies, aren’t expected by anyone to make much of a difference. (Indeed, their main impact might be to allow the White House to tell hawks at home that it’s doing something.) Russia is not Cuba, North Korea or Iran, and its vast economy can’t be crippled by sanctions—at least not by anything that won’t also cripple or even devastate Western Europe and perhaps tip the world back into recession. In a masterpiece of understatement, President Obama said, “We don’t yet know whether it is going to work.” Plus, the sort of tough sanctions on Russia that the United States might want will be sharply resisted by Western Europe and by the huge array of companies deeply embedded in Russian business, especially oil and gas and banking.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, despite near-daily calls with Secretary of State John Kerry—and those are a good sign—seems to have utterly forgotten the agreement he signed in Geneva, the accord widely heralded as a possible breakthrough in the standoff. That agreement called for the armed rebel groups who’ve seized government buildings across eastern Ukraine to stand down, and it called for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to dispatch a mission there. But the pro-Russian rebels—who seem not to have wide support in the population—are escalating their actions, and Lavrov has effectively placed them under Moscow’s umbrella. (That’s not surprising, since many of them are probably Russian special forces units and paramilitary groups sponsored by Russia.) In a fairly shocking statement—one widely reflected by both Vladimir Putin and the Russian state-controlled media—Lavrov warned Ukraine not to attack the pro-Russian rebels in the east, as if Ukraine’s forces don’t have the right to enforce law and order in their own territory. Said Lavrov:
If our interests, our legitimate interests, the interests of Russians have been attacked directly, like they were in South Ossetia for example, I do not see any other way but to respond in accordance with international law.
It isn’t clear what Lavrov means by the “interests of Russians,” since there are supposedly no Russians in Ukraine (except ethnic Russians and Russian language speakers), but his reference to South Ossetia, a breakaway part of Georgia, is clear as day.
In the wake of events that showed that Russia had no intention of living up to the Geneva agreement, Kerry made the right point:
It has now been a week since the United States, the European Union, Russia, and Ukraine met in Geneva. We did so after a phone call between President Putin and President Obama, in which both leaders expressed a desire to avoid further escalation in Ukraine. We met in Geneva with a clear mission: to improve security conditions and find political solutions to the conflict threatening the sovereignty and unity of Ukraine. And right there in Geneva, EU High Representative Ashton and I made clear that both Russia and Ukraine had to demonstrate more than good faith. They needed to take concrete actions in order to meet their commitments.
The simple reality is you can’t resolve a crisis when only one side is willing to do what is necessary to avoid a confrontation. Every day since we left Geneva—every day, even up to today, when Russia sent armored battalions right up the Luhansk Oblast border—the world has witnessed a tale of two countries, two countries with vastly different understandings of what it means to uphold an international agreement.
One week later, it is clear that only one side, one country, is keeping its word. And for anyone who wants to create gray areas out of black, or find in the fine print crude ways to justify crude actions, let’s get real—the Geneva agreement is not open to interpretation. It is not vague. It is not subjective. It is not optional. What we agreed to in Geneva is as simple as it is specific.
He pointed out that Ukraine lived up to its side of the agreement, pretty much, and even made important gestures to Russia:
From day one, the Government of Ukraine started making good on its commitments—from day one. From day one, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has kept his word. He immediately agreed to help vacate buildings. He suspended Ukraine’s counterterrorism initiative over Easter, choosing de-escalation, despite Ukraine’s legitimate, fundamental right to defend its own territory and its own people. From day one, the Ukrainian Government sent senior officials to work with the OSCE, in keeping with the agreement, to send them to work in regions where Russia had voiced its most urgent concerns about the security of Russian speakers and ethnic Russians. And on day one, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk went on live television and committed his government publicly to all of the people of Ukraine that—and these are his words—committed them to undertake comprehensive constitutional reform that will strengthen the powers of the regions. He directly addressed the concerns expressed by the Russians, and he did so on day one.
But the Russians, who seem intent on destabilizing Ukraine to make sure that it doesn’t tilt West, clearly aren’t responding.
The New York Times outlined the many, many reasons why Putin isn’t likely to invade Ukraine:
…the cost of a huge occupation force and the responsibility for the welfare of millions more people; the effect of new, more severe Western sanctions on an already weak economy; the possibility of significant Russian casualties caused by an insurgency in eastern Ukraine; a new, implacably anti-Russian western section of Ukraine; and likely pariah status internationally.
But Putin seems determined to keep the heat on.